Ex-mayoral candidate gets 9 years after sexual battery plea

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comOctober 2, 2013 

Baxter Tisdale, the former Rock Hill mayoral candidate

— Baxter Tisdale, the former Rock Hill mayoral candidate extradited to Florida last year on a 1986 rape charge, will spend the next nine years in prison after pleading guilty to sexual battery – although a jury blunder initially resulted in a mistrial last week.

Tisdale, 50, had been charged with two counts of armed sexual battery, burglary with an assault and battery while armed, and armed robbery with a weapon in connection with an unsolved 1986 rape in Miami.

In August 2012, York County drug agents arrested Tisdale at his Walnut Street home in Rock Hill, charging him as a fugitive after investigators with the Miami-Dade Police Department said Tisdale’s DNA matched the unsolved sexual assault in the department’s cold case files.

Tisdale was extradited to Miami, where he remained in jail for months without a bond. In July, a judge granted him a $500,000 bond, which his lawyer doubted he would be able to pay.

Last week, Tisdale took the stand, arguing that his sexual encounter with a woman in her bed while her children slept beside her was consensual, said his lawyer, Christian Dunham.

Tisdale maintained that he and the victim had been in a longtime relationship, he said. His cousin testified that she often gave Tisdale car rides to the woman’s home.

The eight-member jury wasn’t convinced. They returned a guilty verdict. But, before Miami-Dade Circuit Judge William Thomas was able to sentence Tisdale, he realized that the jury foreperson should not have been in the jury box, Dunham said.

Fifty potential jurors were summoned to court for Tisdale’s two-day rape trial. Prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed on eight men and women to sit in the jury box and listen to evidence and testimony by 20 witnesses.

After the jury deliberated, the foreperson, a woman whose last name is “Acosta,” handed over the verdict.

Problem was, she was the wrong “Acosta” in the jury box, Dunham said.

A man with the last name “Acosta” was originally selected to sit on the jury. When the judge called his name, the female “Acosta” stood up instead and took a seat in the jury box.

“Nobody picked it up” until after the trial was over, Dunham said.

Judge Thomas “polled” the jury, a process whereby trial judges call out the names of each juror and then ask if they indeed unanimously agreed to a verdict.

During polling, the judge called out “Acosta” the woman, not the man, responded, Dunham said. The judge declared a mistrial, which “worked out for the benefit of Mr. Tisdale.”

Instead of trying the case again, Tisdale accepted a plea deal. He pleaded no contest to the sex assault allegations, refusing to acknowledge that he raped the woman. Still, he will spend nine years behind bars with credit for the year he’s been imprisoned.

Dunham doubts he’ll serve the entire sentence.

Court documents and police investigators accused Tisdale of two rapes in the same Miami neighborhood in 1986 in which he allegedly broke into women’s homes and raped them at knifepoint while their children were asleep beside them.

DNA was collected from both rapes but remained untouched in the police department’s crime lab, a Miami-Dade detective told The Herald last year. For more than two decades, both rapes went unsolved.

In 2006, Miami-Dade police formed a cold case squad. Those detectives in 2009 reopened an April 1986 rape file and entered the DNA in a Federal Bureau of Investigation DNA index system.

Last summer, a DNA match for Tisdale turned up when police opened the file from the first rape in February 1986. Police spoke with the victim in that attack, who positively identified Tisdale as her rapist from a photo lineup and recounted the events of her rape, which were consistent with a report police took after the attack, according to court documents.

Last week, the woman testified that she knew of Tisdale, but had never personally met him and had never been in a relationship with him, Dunham said.

Another of Tisdale’s alleged victims also took the stand, he said.

In May 2009, Tisdale was arrested and extradited to Miami after DNA from the April 1986 cold case rape matched his, police said. He remained jailed for the next two years until the case was dismissed when the victim could not be found, Dunham said.

But, according to Dunham, Tisdale never raped the woman, but instead gave her crack cocaine in exchange for sex.

Months before the trial, prosecutors motioned to have details of that attack introduced as evidence.

That motion, called Williams Rule, allows prosecutors to introduce evidence from past alleged crimes they believe is relevant into a current case. The evidence must specifically prove motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity or absence of mistakes or accident, but it can be used to demonstrate habits, tendencies or bad behavior, according to the law.

Judge Thomas ruled that prosecutors could use the evidence during the trial, Dunham said.

“That was devastating” to the case, he said.

Tisdale moved to Rock Hill in the early 1990s. In 1999, he ran for the Ward I City Council seat but lost to longtime incumbent Councilman Winston Searles. He received only nine votes.

Two years later, he unsuccessfully ran against incumbent Mayor Doug Echols.

While living in Rock Hill, he wrote several letters to the editor that were published in The Herald. In them, he advocated for the creation of a “fourth political party” he dubbed the “Tisdaleian Party.”

Tisdale is currently imprisoned at a Florida state prison.

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